What They Actually Meant
By Tom Plate
In diplomacy in particular and world affairs in general, public figures do not often say what they truly mean, especially in public, so you have to listen to them very carefully.
This does not mean that they are necessarily deliberate liars; sometimes they don't know what to say, or are simply too polite to say it out loud. As Charles M. Talleyrand, the legendary 19th century French diplomat, noted famously: ``Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts." Perhaps we might add that speech was also given to man to cover up the times when he has no thoughts.
There are three recent examples of one or the other:
The Japanese Jumble: How to say no without overtly saying no. One of our favorite Talleyrand-type diplo-ducks ordinarily comes in response to a request that is all but impossible to grant. The phrase is particularly characteristic of, though not a wholly owned subsidiary, of high-ranking Japanese officials and diplomats. The wonderful phrase is: ``That will be difficult."
What it really means is that what you are asking isn't going to happen in a thousand years, was never going to happen. In fact, you might just as well go and forget about it and have a few stiff sakes.
In a fabulous example from the other day, Minister Kaoru Yosano was asked if Japan could motivate its consumers to spend more to spruce up sagging worldwide demand for consumer goods. Japan is the world's second richest economy and the lovely thought was that a massive yen for shopping and buying might compensate for limping demand elsewhere (especially in the U.S.).
To that notion, the minister for economic and fiscal policy didn't exactly say no. He didn't want to make it seem as if the Japanese were uncaring about the near-collapse of global demand. Instead, he put the proposition this way: ``In my home, if someone asks me 'What do you want to buy?'… it would take a week to think. I have a car, two refrigerators, three TVs …so it is very, very difficult."
Usually they just say ``very difficult." The addition of the double ``very" puts a total kibosh on the whole thing. It is the Japanese equivalent of the Indonesian saying that it would be like getting ``water from the moon." Before too long, you get the idea ― it's not going to happen.
The Mumbai Mumble: How to avoid clarity when the picture is relatively clear. Getting to the bottom of the Mumbai massacre won't take us to 20,000 leagues under the sea. It's pretty obvious that the evil this time came from Pakistani elements, though not, for all anyone knows, directly from officialdom. But saying Pakistan isn't involved at all is pretty silly.
If a dozen white racist crackers from the American Midwest descended on a neighboring state and blew up a hotel, train station and synagogue, not even FOX News, the gung-ho America cable news network, would act as if nothing happened from our end. And so a Pakistan Muslim League leader came up with the best dodge line of the day: ``Just because one of the gunmen in Mumbai says he came from Pakistan, and he possibly made this statement under duress, doesn't prove that Pakistan was involved." Right ― what's that other saying that suddenly comes to mind: ``If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
The American No-comment But-Yes-a-Comment Fumble: President-elect Barack Obama obviously didn't want to comment directly when he was asked whether retaliation by India for Mumbai might be warranted. After all, the Democratic winner of the November presidential election, due to be formally sworn in Jan. 20, keeps saying America can only have one President at a time.
And George W. Bush, allegedly, is still on call. But Obama keeps on talking and talking anyhow, and against the backdrop of his own prior endorsement of the U.S. right to intervene unilaterally in Pakistan as may be necessary, he said this: ``Sovereign states obviously have the right to protect themselves; beyond that I don't want to comment on the specific situation that's taking place in South Asia right now."
You don't, Mr. President-elect? Well, that's probably a really good thing; with the above, you probably said enough already. But we do understand: It's darn hard to be a politician or a diplomat and say nothing. As Talleyrand explained it in another famous and wise observation: ``A diplomat who says 'yes' means 'maybe', a diplomat who says 'maybe' means 'no', and a diplomat who says 'no' is no diplomat."
This is all very difficult.
Veteran journalist Tom Plate is writing a major book on Asia. He can be reached at email@example.com.